Las Damas Romana, a painting by the patriot Juan Luna, depicts two Roman maidens relaxing in a vestibule opening into a garden or courtyard. A wicker flower-basket lies toppled in the left foreground, surrounded by assorted flowers and leaves scattered on the ground. Note that the basket’s mouth opens up toward the maiden on the left, something that may have great significance to the whole picture beyond being an artistic technique in composition. Indeed, Luna, as we will see, uses it to suggest a cornucopia of the highest of human ideals.
The presence of a large frond (in the right foreground) of what appears to be “gabi” or yam (or a large lily plant) grabs one’s attention away from the basket as it practically leads the eye toward its big, green leaf and then to the bunch of doves lifting up from the bottom step, apparently startled by two dogs on a leash.
The area in the whole foreground seems to tell us a couple of things: First, that it depicts disarray or chaos after an activity. The basket of flowers may have been an ornament used for a ceremonial or religious rite where people offered incense (which still burns on the metal stand on the left) to a god ensconced in a small altar above the burner. Secondly, the maidens either have taken time to rest after the rite before cleaning up the place or they were the very culprits who caused all that disarray around them. That is, they might have capered around with their pet dogs in the courtyard, thus, toppling the basket and littering up the place. Agitated by the doves’ presence, the dogs may have obliged the young maidens’ caprice.
As the scene unfolds, the two maidens seem to be taking their rest while the dogs and the doves continue to enact their playful chase. Hence, the stark disorder in the foreground contrasts with the harmonious, supine postures of the maidens and the seeming friendly rapport between the animals. The sight of truly fierce and ravenous dogs should have sent all those doves skyward by then; but that does not happen as they all are somewhat acquainted with one another, pets sharing common masters and domicile. The doves, wisely enough, do keep a safe distance from the dogs while the dogs do a quiet, tame dance with the doves, as opposed to a raging, fearsome pursuit of those fowls in the wild.
The restfulness of the whole scene, of course, is borne wholly by the two main figures in the painting, Las Damas Romanas — two Roman maidens in different modes of repose. One, half-sitting (as she leans against a wall-end) and half-reclining (as her right leg stretches upon the carpet spread on the steps), oversees the action. The other maiden, almost in a horizontal position except for her head which turns toward the dogs she is restraining with a single leash, observes and controls the action. Their bodies form a nexus of warm friendship involved in an overtly playful yet inwardly dangerous recreation.
The first maiden, wearing a thin, open-shouldered, pinkish and almost see-through dress, covers (has actually wrapped) her body from waist down with a thick, white linen blanket, giving Luna reason to exhibit his abilities in rendering furls and folds of fabric to mimic the common technique of Roman sculptors such as the great Michelangelo. (Luna executed this painting during his stay in Rome as an apprentice to a Spanish professor of painting in Madrid.) The contrasting show of upper-body flesh and covering of her lower parts (except for her right foot whose role seems to be to lead the eye back to the doves) seems to be Luna’s balanced concession to his masculine passion for the feminine allure vis-à-vis his feelings of modesty and decency. For the perfect choice of her pink dress and her white cover seems to exude natural freshness, purity and dignity. She could very well be the symbol of wisdom, freedom or peace often utilized by artists in their works. With flowers on her head, Luna imbues her further with beauty and honor. Her reflective bearing, in fact, reminds one of Michelangelo’s legendary La Pieta – not of sorrow or resignation though, but of security and compassion. She only betrays a slight concern for the doves with her left hand on her upper chest – or is it fear or uncertainly which every person has for her pets? And, yes, every devoted mother has for her children.
The other maiden wears brighter shades of colors – a white topping (somewhat merging with the white blanket) with color prints and a scarlet, velvety “skirt” with a wide, greenish hemline. Like her companion, it could be that she has wrapped herself with a blanket, as her legs appear to be under different clothes. We wonder whether it is cold (the blankets) or warm (the thin blouse) – Luna’s reference, perhaps, to his tropical origin? Moreover, she rests her torso on the first maiden’s lap as she keeps the dogs at bay. Obviously, this maiden has forearms that are quite big and muscular as if she could be a friend-maid of the first maiden. She it is who has the dogs in her care and wears less regale clothing. But who can be sure of that? Also, compared to the first maiden, she is duskier, with a tinge of brown on her complexion against the other’s fairer skin. Is she pure Roman at all or half-Roman, half-barbarian? Half-civilized, half-ruled-by-passion? Half-pure, half-corrupt? Half-human, half-animal (or led by instinct, that is)? Half-retarding, half-adventurous? Is Luna using her for something else close to his heart?
Here is where we bring the symbolism into focus. The first maiden basks in the light emanating from the upper left (see the shadows of the doves). The glow emphasizes her pose and makes her to be the focal point of the whole story. Her importance is contained in the said aura Luna created for her role. He obviously uses her to bring everything back to her attention as she herself tries to point literally to her own given role as the source of strength and light.
Is she the freedom indeed of Luna’s country he so desired as he painted her? The peace of his faraway land that he and his compatriots in Europe eagerly worked for?
And the other woman: Is she the dear country Luna left to pursue his studies abroad? In contrast, she emanates from the dark background which covers almost a third of the entire canvas. Her whole body, seemingly covered in blood, seems to be oppressed by the whole weight of the shadows behind and above her, like a struggling nation whose darkened past (relics on the shelves behind her seem to portray a mini-museum) she is only beginning to unravel as she learns from the wisdom of the Universe she lives in. (Like Luna learning from Western civilization while discovering his Asian heritage?) She is only learning to restrain the wildness and the violence that surround her that seek to destroy the freedom, peace and joy that fly freely in her own sunlit skies. The dogs and the doves describe the forces that beset Luna’s country then and now – violence, greed, corruption and idealism, faith and progress.
The rite that had brought about the chaos in the scene depicts the volatile religious and political ferment back home that Luna described visually. Order in society only comes when the forces of the darkness (the dogs rule in the shadows) are overcome (put on leash) so that the forces of light (the doves dwell freely in the light) may reign supreme.
Though the dogs chase after the doves, they have wings to fly with toward freedom. Alas, among the many doves – the many fighters of freedom on hand – only one aims to fly back to the source of light and salvation. Hence, while most of the doves fly away in many directions and one plump dove smugly walks among the disarray, unmindful of others around her (like the fat, indolent and indifferent rich, perhaps), one triumphant dove manages to fly up to the mother of peace and honor. Only that dove – no one else — shares the confinement of the golden carpet upon which the maidens (country and freedom) have established themselves – the place of honor reserved for those who pursue the highest calling.
Alas, only a few choose to seek the light. Luna knew the price for the struggle for truth. His next painting, La Spoliarium, would prove it further.
Apart from proving himself through this painting as a master in composition, Luna has succeeded in enshrining and immortalizing the human struggle for idealism in aesthetic form. The dynamic movement of the elements of the picture, seen in the synergistic symbolism Luna seems to evoke, continues in an endless visual and virtual cycle that turns until now. The picture and the story is the one, unending struggle for awareness and progress. What Luna, Hidalgo, Rizal, Del Pilar, Mabini and the rest of our heroes fought for then continue to challenge us today.
Luna created a lasting vista of what he and others bore valiantly as our predecessors. Is it not proper then that we as a nation give honor to his vision by reclaiming this work of art and showcasing it in our midst where its message and energy may propel us to continue the search for truth and justice? Only then will the flowering of the nation toward the renewing light – when chaos turns to order and the harvest of prosperity is assured — finally arrive.
Las Damas Romanas is up for bid at a starting price of about $1,300,000. I would willingly put up a small portion of my meager earnings to start a fund that would hopefully bring this masterpiece to these beloved islands. That would be a fitting and lasting gift for our nation on the occasion of today’s National Heroes Day.
(The concept above has been made into a storyline for a screenplay. The copyright will be submitted to The Film Academy of the Philippines for safekeeping..)
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